Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble?

Northern Ireland is a country that has made progress, with the prospect in May of an election campaign dominated not by the old politics of security, terrorist activity and sectarianism, reports Ed Jacobs.

Yesterday’s piece on the Daily Politics clearly outlined the overriding progress that has been made in Northern Ireland since what continue to the dubbed “the troubles”. This is not to say that things are now completely normal; the main split in Northern Ireland’s politics remains whether you are catholic and protestant rather than left/right.

The extra £240 million provided to the Police Service of Northern Ireland is a clear reminder of the dissident threat which continues to overshadow the nation. And the continued lack of a properly funded and supported opposition at Stormont, as bemoaned by UUP leader Tom Elliott, remains a sign of a political institution which continues to be seen as a special case, not yet able to operate like its counterparts in Scotland and Wales.

But despite this, Northern Ireland is a country that has made progress, with the prospect in May of an election campaign dominated not by the old politics of security, terrorist activity and sectarianism but by the same issues dominating the rest of the UK’s political classes, namely cuts, jobs and economic growth.

For all the anger and heat generated by it, the passing of the budget by MLAs was a clear sign of an Assembly and a government maturing, and concentrating on everyday, bread and butter issues rather than the efforts and energy that are far too often used simply to keep the executive together.

And so it is as a result of a growing confidence in Stormont’s ability to operate and the improved relations between parties that once unspoken ideas and thoughts are now becoming accepted norms.

In February, DUP leader and first minister, Peter Robinson – whose predecessor Iain Paisley has long been a critic of the catholic church – explained that he would be prepared to attend a Catholic mass of a friend. He said:

“I have a very large number, perhaps a surprisingly large number, of Roman Catholic friends. There are issues of showing respect to individuals so that (religious objections) would not keep me out of going to the communion service.”

Ahead of an expected visit to Ireland by the Pope next year, a newly released Foreign Office memo has suggested that a visit by the Pope to Northern Ireland could be possible, explaining:

“It is perhaps inevitable that focus will now shift to a possible visit by the pope to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has not been included in previous papal itineraries (1979 visit to Ireland and 1982 to UK).

“The deputy first minister of Northern Ireland has recently mentioned the prospect of a visit. A papal visit to Northern Ireland would take place in the context of a visit to Ireland as it is treated by all the main Christian churches as a single ecclesiastical unit.

“There is a possible peg for a papal visit to Ireland in 2012 when Dublin will host a major international Catholic event – the Eucharist Congress.”

And Martin McGuinness has warned those who might be contemplating protests in Ireland during the Queen’s forthcoming visit to Dublin not to, explaining:

“We are all on a journey and the journey we are on means there are different situations we are going to have to deal with, and Peter has identified the issue of Mass. While people have the right to protest, I think protest would be a mistake. Particularly protests that could turn violent. It would be a huge mistake.”

This is not to say that things have reached state of perfection. The TUV continue to protest at a Papal visit to Northern Ireland and McGuinness continues to harbour suspicions of the British state. But the fact is that both DUP and Sinn Fein have swallowed many bitter pills to make peace work, which can be seen in stable institutions at Stormont concerned more with public services, finances, jobs and economic growth than sectarian divisions.

And it is perhaps because of this growing maturity that the Treasury looks set to cheer all Northern Ireland’s parties by providing MLAs with the powers needed to lower corporation tax to attract inward investment and better compete with Ireland.

May’s elections provide a further opportunity to continue the progress made already.

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